It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Start a Happiness Project for 2008!

Not long ago, I had an epiphany – happiness projects for everyone! Join in! No need to catch up, just jump in now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

January 1, the most inspiring opportunity for resolution-making, is just a few days away.

You can start a happiness project with just one resolution – some aspect of your life that, if changed, would make you happier. Or maybe you want to come up with five or six resolutions. Or maybe you want to do what I did, and have a different set of resolutions for each month of the coming year. Zoikes, I’m here to say — it really DOES make a difference. You can make yourself happier.

Two things are important:

1 – reminders. You need constant repetition to keep your resolution uppermost in your mind. Review a chart daily (that’s what I do), post a sticky note on the bathroom mirror, put it on your screensaver, or whatever works to have the resolution flash constantly before your eyes.

2 – accountability. You need to mark your progress. Give yourself gold stars, or a check mark on a chart, or email with a friend, or make plans to meet someone at the gym – whatever it takes to make yourself feel accountable for sticking to a resolution.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider focusing on your energy. Energy makes everything easier. So maybe you should resolve to go to sleep twenty minutes earlier each night, or going for a twenty-minute walk each day. No matter WHAT your life is like, you can probably manage to keep one of those two resolutions, and, research shows, it will have big happiness paybacks.

If energy isn’t an issue, working on strengthening your relationships. Draw closer to your family or make more time for friends. Bonds with other people is THE key to happiness, so taking steps in this area will give you a real boost.

As I’ve been working on my Happiness Project, I keep making the same resolutions over and over, and I keep backsliding, over and over. I comfort myself with examples of Tolstoy, Pepys, and St. Therese, all more elevated souls than I, who re-made the same resolutions throughout their lives.

Samuel Johnson, who repeatedly records in his diary his vow to “avoid idleness” and “rise early,” is another patron saint of resolution-makers.

I often think of his diary note: “I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions.”

Just making a resolution probably won’t be enough to get yourself to 100% compliance. That’s okay. Small steps can mean big changes in happiness.

As I mentioned, along with all my tremendous stack of resolutions, I’ve made a new resolution: not to criticize the Big Man to other people. I’d love to hear other people’s resolutions – great inspiration.

I pick up a novel that turns out to be all about the nature of happiness.

One of the great pleasures of vacation is getting to do some serious reading.

I often develop a weird, irrational aversion to books that are very popular. I understand that it doesn’t make sense that I think I’m LESS likely to like a book that millions of people like, but somehow that sometimes happens.

So it was with Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I’d set my mind against it — for no good reason.

But then, as research for the Happiness Project, I picked up Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty. I loved that book, so I steeled myself to read Bel Canto.

It turns out that the novel is all about the nature of happiness. I don’t want to give the plot away — it involves a very unlikely set of circumstances.

I think that if I weren’t thinking about happiness all the time, I might have been bothered by the “unrealistic” nature of the events. But because I was reading it, instead, as an exploration for the circumstances necessary for happiness, I appreciated its careful working through of many aspects of happiness.

The role of families, of expectations, of the weight of the future, of mortality, of the consolations of art, of the importance of material comforts, of education, of communication…all this and much more. This description might make it sound tiresome and pedantic, but it’s not, at all.

In particular, I was interested to see the weight given to the “atmosphere of growth,” which was the aspect that eluded me for the longest time when I was devising my First Splendid Truth (to think about happiness, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth). Many characters find a way to develop an atmosphere of growth in highly restricted circumstances, and that’s how they find consolation and happiness — and form bonds with other people.

So I thought I was just doing some holiday reading, but in fact, it was a good happiness-project meditation as well as a good novel.

An early New Year’s Resolution, in honor of Christmas.

In honor of Christmas, and inspired by my love of making New Year’s resolutions (well, I love making resolutions anytime, actually), I resolve not to say anything critical of the Big Man to anyone — other than to the Big Man himself, and I’m going to try to resist doing that, too.

But no behind-the-back complaining, barbs masked as jokes, or exasperated asides. It’s not helpful, it’s not nice.

It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Join or form a group.

Not long ago, I had an epiphany – happiness projects for everyone! Join in! No need to catch up, just jump in now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One thing is absolutely clear: a key to happiness is having close relationships with other people. Everyone, even introverts, are happier when they interact with other people. People enjoy activities more when others are involved. Having lots of close relationships makes it far more likely that people describe themselves as “very happy.”

Despite this, a study showed that Americans today have fewer friends than they’ve had in the past, and they have fewer contacts from clubs and their neighborhoods.

One way I’ve found to strengthen my relationships – and to achieve many other happiness resolutions, as well – is to form or join groups.

For example, following my resolutions to “Be Gretchen,” “Bring people together,” “Make time for fun,” and “Show up,” I started a children’s literature reading group, which has been a great source of happiness. I joined an existing book group when I moved to New York City, and that’s another major source.

Being part of a group brings you closer to other people. You have a common activity to pursue. You have a shared interest in a subject or activity. Often groups provide “an atmosphere of growth,” because you’re learning something new (in a painting class) or pursuing a worthwhile activity (volunteering at a soup kitchen) together.

Also, studies show that group membership helps people feel connected and gives a real boost to satisfaction and personal confidence. It’s a way to interact with people who share your values.

A group can be a way to enjoy an activity you find fun. Did anyone see the episode of The Office where the Pam, Toby, and what’s-his-name formed the “Finer Things Club” so they could enjoy discussing literature and eating off real china at work? Fun sounds a bit frivolous, but research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life. People who have fun are twenty times more likely to be happy.

Joining or forming a group is also particularly useful if you want to create accountability for yourself. People join Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers, for example, to keep themselves accountable.

You can form a group around any challenge. A reader emailed me that she’s part of a “goals group” which meets every two weeks so members can track their progress and support each other “with inspiration, motivation, and fun.” A friend of mine was in a goals group made up of people who wanted to switch professions. Talking about goals, getting encouragement and advice, and reporting back to the group makes it easier to work toward a goal.

I hope that by joining the Happiness Project group on Facebook, people will feel inspired to create and follow their own Happiness Projects. An internet group isn’t as satisfying as a real, live group, but I think it’s still useful.

Now, a lot of people say, “I don’t have time to form or join a group.”

If you can’t meet once a month, how about every six weeks? Once a quarter? Semi-annually?

Or maybe you form a group that meets just one time. My father-in-law helped organize a dinner for a bunch of people to talk about fly-fishing. He had a lot of fun. Maybe the group will meet again someday, maybe not, but it was still enjoyable.

In fact, if you don’t have much time, I find that being part of an organized group is a very efficient way to strengthen relationships. Instead of having to take the initiative to see the group members individually, I know I’ll see them together.

Socializing individually is more intimate, but there are also benefits to socializing in a group. In the groups I’ve started or joined, different members have pulled in their friends, and through this, I’ve made new friends. In a phenomenon called “triadic closure,” people tend to befriend the friends of their friends – and this is very satisfying.

Friendships thrive on inter-connection, and it’s both energizing and comforting to feel that you’re building not just friendships, but a social network.

So ask yourself: what’s something that would bring you happiness?

Spending more time bird-watching? Quitting smoking? Studying the New Testament? Playing water polo? Switching jobs? Keeping your happiness-project resolutions?

Form or join a group around this subject. It will really make you happy.

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever come across is Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. He distills all plot into 36 situations. Most of the allusions are to French literature, and I’ve often thought that a fun thing to do would be to try to slot all my favorite books and movies into his categories.

I just discovered a site that lists the 36 situations (plus one), and also randomly generates one particular situation to help a writer overcome writer’s block. Very cool. I’m not clear on the name of the site or who is responsible for it, so I’m sorry not to be giving credit to whoever did this.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

Can you think of movie scenes in which someone does an exceptionally kind or generous act?

The other day, on the subject of “YOUR Happiness Project,” I posted about trying to cultivate an “area of refuge” for your mind – that is, when you feel yourself beginning to brood, wrench your thoughts away to think about happier subjects.

Along those lines, I’ve been making a list of scenes from movies where I felt a big jolt of pleasure at seeing someone perform some exceptionally kind or generous act – but I’m having trouble coming up with a lot of examples.

Off the top of my head, I thought of the scene in Boogie Nights when the main character, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his friend Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) eagerly ask the porn producer (Burt Reynolds) if they could make a different kind of porn movie, with plot and character. Burt Reynolds pauses and reflects, then agrees to take a chance on their vision.

One reason I love Boogie Nights so much is that the setting – the porn industry – is such an unexpected context in which to see a working out of the questions “What is the nature of loving action?” “What is our responsibility to others?” “What does virtue look like?”

I also thought of the scene in Steel Magnolias, in the beauty shop, when the sick, pregnant daughter (Julia Roberts) tells her mother that she wants to cut off her beautiful hair, to make her life simpler. Her mother (Sally Fields) pauses and thinks, then answers, “I think that would be just precious.”

In both cases, it is in the pause before speech that grace descends. The audience sees that the answer could go either way – to the loving, generous response, or the hasty, thoughtless response. Very Flannery O’Connor-ish.

I’d love to have more examples, and I know there must be a million. Please post any great scenes that come to your mind – and the more widely known the movie, the better. There are a ton of examples from the movie After the Wedding, say, but not very many people have seen it.

I posed this question to the Happiness Project group on Facebook, and got a terrific list — not of transcendent scenes that I recognized, however, but rather of movies to rent! I think I’d only seen three or four of the movies people mentioned.

I had never thought of Groundhog Day (a movie I love) as a forced, inescapable Happiness Project, but that’s certainly what it is.

My number-one project for vacation is to rent Amelie.

The main way that I find an “area of refuge” is to open up a book. I was very excited to discover Bookdwarf, a great, funny blog about books and bookworld news that captures the delight of reading and makes me want to read everything the writer recommends. A lot of people write about books in a way that I find interesting, but that doesn’t make me feel like reading what they’re discussing. Bookdwarf inspires me to make a list and head to the library.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.